There are two major editing overwhelm traps that people tend to fall into:
1. You write up an entire draft of a paper, chapter, or even a book. You type out that last period, celebrate for all of 30 seconds, then realize that now you have to edit the whole freaking thing. Dangit. That’s going to take forever! So, you decide to just do that later…
2. You edit as you write, which ends up feeling like two steps forward, three steps back. You write a page or two, then you edit those pages and, in the end, you still aren’t sure if you like those pages. When you finally push your way through to some type of ending, you’re so exhausted from writing/editing that you can even think of editing again.
In either case, I’d recommend putting the draft (whatever shape it’s in) aside for a bit. Celebrate what you have written. Creation is extremely difficult work! Creation is mentally, emotionally, and physically taxing. Your brain feels kind of like mush. So let some tension off, for at least one night.
The next morning (or next week), take one hour to plan your editing phases. Yes, phases, plural. I recommend three editing phases at a minimum, but don’t freak out! Editing doesn’t take nearly as long as writing, and with these guidelines in hand, you'll easily avoid editing overwhelm.
These three phases are exactly how I edit every paper that comes to my inbox, whether it’s a short article or a full book-length manuscript.
First editing phase: The broad view, effective structure
Take a broad view of the entire manuscript. Try to read the pages as your reader would read them. Remember that your reader has no idea what this manuscript is about, and she’ll probably be skeptical of your argument.
The beginning of the manuscript should catch the reader’s attention and make your topic relevant to him. Even if you’re an academic, don’t be afraid to start with a funny story or a current event, so long as it points to the reader that, yes, this topic of research is important.
Then, present your argument early on in the manuscript, as clearly as possible. Each paragraph should contribute to your overall argument. Each sentence should support the point presented in the paragraph, without being repetitive.
During this broad view, you are making sure that your argument is coherent and supported throughout. You are looking for:
- Sentences or paragraphs that repeat any points
- Sentences or paragraphs that are tangential to the overall argument
- Any pieces of your argument that aren’t fully supported – you may have to add anything from one more sentence to another section
- Places where you could insert more interest or personality, to help the reader become more invested in your topic
- Clear statements of your argument and supporting points in both the introduction and the conclusion. In fact, put the introduction and the conclusion side by side. They should convey the same message, although not in the same words.
Edit the entire manuscript in this phase. Divide your page count by 4 – that’s approximately how many hours this may take, if you don’t end up writing any new sections. Put the manuscript away for at least one day before moving on to the next editing phase.
Second editing phase: Close-up view, effective sentences
Now, you’ll take a close-up view of the manuscript. This is what many people think of when they say they’re “editing.” Begin again at the beginning of the manuscript. If during the first phase you had your “reader” hat on, now you put on your “editor” hat.
Examine each sentence. Make sure every sentence clearly and effectively gets your message across. If the sentence is 40+ words, it’s probably too long, and the meaning likely gets lost around word number 30. Consider breaking up very long sentences. However, very short sentences can be annoying, so consider joining very short sentences. I’m not saying that every sentence should be approximately 30 words, but I am saying that a when you see very long or a very short sentence, you should pause and consider whether the sentence is both clear and effective.
Trim out words and phrases as much as you possibly can. Unnecessary words cloud your meaning and make your reader’s attention wander. If you have something important to say with this manuscript, don’t hide your message behind filler phrases like, “the fact that” or “we may therefore say.” Just say what you need to say! Your reader will thank the heavens above for straightforward writing. It doesn’t need to be boring – readers equally love a good flair – but cut out those useless phrases.
Also, look for words or phrases that you repeat from one sentence to the next. Substitute some of the instances with a synonym or cut them completely.
Again, edit the entire manuscript in this phase. It’ll probably take the same amount of time as the first phase. Put the manuscript away for at least an hour before moving on the last editing phase.
Third editing phase: Proofreading, grammar and spelling
Alright, this is the third and final phase. Once you complete this phase, you’ll feel confident that your manuscript is in really fantastic shape.
I recommend actually beginning at the end of the manuscript, and working your way backward, one sentence at a time. If you want the full details of how to proofread like a pro, I demonstrate my Change Up Method in a video – it’s definitely the best way to catch every error.
Read each sentence in isolation from the other sentences, looking for spelling, subject-verb agreement, correct apostrophes and commas, all of those nitty gritty grammar rules.
If you feel not quite up to par with your grammar foundations, read the sentences aloud. You’ll probably notice at least 70% of the errors, if not more, as you say the words.
This third phase shouldn’t take as long as the other two. Divide your page count by 6 or so, and that’s how many hours proofreading (yes, even proofreading backward!) should take.
Editing in phases will help you feel (and be!) more productive
The major problem with just saying, “I’m going to edit this manuscript” is that there are no clear goals or objectives, so there’s no way to tell whether you’ve finished. You could just edit for weeks on end and not be sure that you’ve completely edited the piece.
I hope that if you approach editing in these three phases, you can give yourself clear goals for each editing phase so that when you’ve passed through a phase, you’ll feel a sense of completion.
What’s the hardest part for you when it comes to editing your own writing? Do you struggle more with the broad view, closing in on sentence structure, or the nitty-gritty grammar? Or something else?
Let me know in the comments below!